Brown Is the New White

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Steve Phillips. Brown Is the New White: How the Demographic Revolution Has Created a New American Majority. New York: The New Press, 2015.

Steve Phillips makes the case that the United States already has a progressive majority, if the demographic growth and voting patterns of the nonwhite population are taken seriously. In 2012, President Obama won reelection with only 39% of the White vote, but with 93% of the Black vote, 71% of the Latino vote, and 73% of the Asian American vote. Other things being equal, this Democratic coalition should grow because of the rapid growth of the nonwhite population. “Each day, the size of the U.S. population increases by more than 8,000 people, and nearly 90 percent of that growth consists of people of color.”

This is not to say that progressive Whites are an insignificant part of the coalition. If only people of color voted reliably Democratic, then any significant political shift could not occur until around 2044, when the U.S. is expected to become a “majority minority” country. But looking at it that way assumes more white-nonwhite polarization than actually exists, and it “overlooks the equation that’s been hiding in plain sight.” Add progressive Whites to progressive people of color, and “this calculation reveals that America has a progressive, multiracial majority right now that has the power to elect presidents and reshape American politics, policies, and priorities for decades to come.”

Historically, the growing political significance of people of color goes back to two major legislative acts of 1965. The Voting Rights Act enabled African Americans to vote in many states where they had been prevented from doing so. The Immigration and Nationality Act got rid of the old quota system that had favored European immigrants, thus opening the door to more Asians, Latin Americans and Africans. Illegal immigration has changed the electorate too, since the children born here are citizens with voting rights even if their parents are not.

Consider the demographics of the various groups:

Non-Latino Whites are 63% of the population and 71% of the Citizen Voting Age Population. They are a much larger portion of the older population than the younger, however, and their overall proportion will continue to decline. On the average they have voted 40% Democratic since 1972.

African Americans are 13% of both the total population and the Citizen Voting Age Population. They have an exceptionally strong allegiance to the Democratic Party.

Latinos are now 17% of the population but only 10% of the Citizen Voting Age Population, since so many are undocumented or not old enough to vote. However, young Latinos are turning eighteen at a rate of about 800,000 a year. Latinos surpassed African Americans in population in 2001, but they have not surpassed them in voting population. They vote much more Democratic than Republican, but not as Democratic as Blacks.

Asian Americans are 6% of the population and 4% of the Citizen Voting Age Population. Their rate of growth in the population surpasses all the others. They also tend to vote Democratic.

Phillips sees a “New American Majority” that is now at 51% of the electorate and growing. He bases this on a simple calculation that multiplies each group’s percentage of the country’s eligible voters by the group’s support for Barack Obama in 2012. (One has to accept the latter as a decent indicator of progressive sentiment.) For example, Latinos are 10% of the country’s voters and voted 71% for Obama, so it follows that 7% of the electorate may be considered progressive Latinos. Similar calculations reveal an electorate that includes 28% progressive Whites, 12% progressive Blacks, 3% progressive Asians, and 1% other progressives. Total: 51 percent!

Phillips identifies 33 states where this new majority “has an outright or soon-to-be-outright mathematical majority of eligible voters.” That’s a total of 398 electoral votes, far more than the 270 required to win the presidency. The new majority is especially influential in big cities, while what might be called the old majority is more prominent in rural areas. This urban-rural split, along with some very effective Republican gerrymandering, accounts for the pattern of governance in states like Texas and North Carolina, where Republicans control the state government and the Congressional delegation while Democrats control many large cities.

The next post will discuss the implications of these changes for political strategy and policy. How can the Democratic Party best consolidate a progressive coalition?


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